Bill Sanders, evangelizing expert

About a month ago, Kevin Carey wrote a eulogy for the late Bill Sanders in a New York Times’ Upshot column. Sanders was a statistician at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, someone who among other things had contributed to a mixed linear model procedure in the SAS statistical system1. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he worked to persuade the state of Tennessee that they could use a statistical approach to measuring teacher effectiveness, one flavor of what we now know as value-added modeling.

To Carey, Sanders was a crusader for an important technocratic tool in school reform. My ASU colleague Audrey Beardsley has a different view: to her, Sanders was a prophet of policy hubris. As a prominent statistical critic of the use of value-added measures in evaluating teachers, Beardsley saw the flaws in Sanders’ approach. To her, those flaws not only outweighed the benefits, but they had been glossed over by Sanders as he sold value-added modeling to policymakers and school districts.2

What strikes me about Sanders’ later career is how well it maps onto the history of school reform a century earlier, at a time when it was much more common for self-described experts to evangelize about the ability to solve broad social problems with technical tools. In a review article last year, Alfredo Artiles, Aydin Bal, and I discussed the role of this networking in the history of special education.3 We called this combination of expert evangelist, technical tool, and object of study a triangle of expertise:

The tie between [Progressive-era] administrative authority and the discourse of special education lay in three connected features: the objects of study in the field, the evangelism of experts embedded in personal and professional networks, and the technical tools that experts and their public partners used in practice. We can call this set a triangle of expertise: objects, experts, and tools.

The modern history of special education since the 1960s has moved far from this origin point, though it left significant institutional legacies. But the phenomenon still exists, and Sanders is a case in point, a technical expert who worked hard to create professional and political networks in support of his preferred tool to improve schools.

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  1. PROC MIXED []
  2. As a postdoc living in Nashville in the 1990s, one thing I saw early on was Sanders’ overconfidence in his model specification, something that remains problematic in value-added models. More specific to Sanders was the proprietary nature of his work, even when it affected the careers of educators; most other statisticians working on value-added modeling are far more open about the inner guts of their work. []
  3. We were delighted when the article won this year’s review of research award from AERA. Don’t congratulate us: read the article!! []